A Brief History of the Internet

Dr. Cerf reminded the audience that the Internet is in fact hundreds of thousands of connected networks. The reason it can function is that all the networks use the same set of protocols. An important point is that these networks are run by different administrations, which must collaborate both technically and economically on a global scale.

This system was also designed to run on any communications substrate. Dr. Cert said that when he and Robert Kahn first started collaborating, they wanted to make sure that the Internet and Internet packets would run on top of any future communications technologies that might develop. Thus, they chose the simplest format they could imagine—underlying technologies that only had to deliver digital signals from point A to point B with some probability of arrival greater than zero. The goal of designing the Internet protocol to run on everything, he said, was so important that they had a T-shirt made that read “IP on everything.” This objective has remained essentially intact for 25 years. Now, however, as a consequence of creating this communications substructure of Internet protocol, people are beginning to use it for other applications that sit on top of the underlying infrastructure.

The Future of the Internet is Uncertain

Dr. Cerf said that the Internet was still in the middle of its “gold rush” period, which has several implications. The first is that this gold rush will probably resemble others in that the people who make money during a gold rush are not the people looking for gold but the people selling picks and shovels to the miners. This is what the telecommunications companies have been doing—selling the electronic equivalent of picks and shovels to people who are looking for gold on the Internet. The second is that no one knows exactly where or how much gold will be found. There are many business models and many new ideas for businesses on the network as we move through a period of great experimentation.

Growth is Rapid but Early

Dr. Cerf noted that the period of rapid Internet growth began in 1988, when the number of computers on the network began to double each year. Between 1997 and 2000, the number of dot-com domains alone grew from 1.3 million registrations to 15 million. In the same period, the number of hosts almost quintupled. The number of countries accessible on the Internet rose to 218. A few weeks before the workshop the last of Africa’s 54 countries came online. By approximate count, the number of users has grown by more than a factor of six in the three-year period.

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement